Better Programming - Autonomy

One of the effects of how exercise science is presented by mainstream media is that it encourages us look outwards in search for answers.
We expect that if we simply look hard enough, we'll find the program or coach that can tell us exactly which exercises to do, which rep/set scheme that will enable us to attract members of the opposite/same sex and at what intensity we should work.

However, if we take a closer look at what the science actually says we'll quickly find that some of the most important answers can be found, not "out there", but within ourselves.

I'm not saying this in an effort to appeal to your emotions. Allowing yourself to be asked questions, answering them yourself and to then act accordingly has been found to improve how you perform and learn in dramatic ways. 

Here are some examples.

The Kickboxer

A world champion kickboxer was asked to participate in an experiment

On six separate occasions the athlete would do would do two rounds (separated by one minute of rest) of throwing 12, single maximal effort punches; a lead straight, rear straight, lead hook and rear hook. Some rounds he would be asked to throw punches in a predetermined order. Other rounds he would punch in a order of his own choosing.

When given the option of deciding the order himself, force velocity (+6-11%) and impact forces (+5-10%) increased.


They replicated the experiment with 13 amateur kickboxers. Here they would also observe improvements in velocity (on average 6%) and force (on average 2%).


"I'm a peacock, you gotta let me fly"

After a demonstration of four exercises (bear crawls, medicine ball slams, jumping jacks and lunges) one of the two groups in this experiment was given the option of deciding the order in which they would perform the movements.

Both groups would then decide how many reps and sets they would do and then move on to the workout itself.


The group that was given the choice did a significantly larger amount of sets and repetitions in all exercises than the control group.

Blue Balls

In this study, two groups of university students were asked to put a colored golf ball as close to a circular target placed 4 meters away from where the participants would be standing.

All subjects in group 1 were offered to chose which color they'd like their regulation golf ball to be - they were also given the option of changing colors after 10 putts. Participants in the other group were given a ball of the same color as a random counterpart in Group 1.

Blue Balls.gif

Simply being offered the choice of picking the color of a ball made a great improvement on group 1's accuracy and how much of this precision they retained when they were retested on another day.


The Blind Side

17 young men who all had a minimum of 3 years of strength training experience were sorted into two groups. The control group would train a program with exercises fixed in a particular order, whereas the subjects in the choice group were free to decide which of these exercises they would do on condition that they did one per muscle group per workout. 


Before and after 9 weeks of this training setup, they measured the test subjects' one rep max in the bench press and squat, as well as lean body mass.

  • Control group average improvements

    • Lean body mass: +1,37%

    • Bench Press: +5,14%

    • Back Squat: +11,54%

  • Choice group average improvements:

    • Lean body mass: +2,47%

    • Bench Press: +6,48%

    • Back Squat: +9,55%

Another interesting observation they made during the experiment was that the choice group did more work without experiencing more fatigue. The total amount of weight lifted was 573 288 kg. In comparison, the control group lifted 464 600 kg without reporting that they felt any less tired.

The Power of Autonomy

There seems to be a trend - one you can find in the majority of all studies regarding autonomy. But why is it that our ability to perform and learn improves when we allow for autonomy?

One reason would be that it makes us more actively involved.
When we make a choice that has a direct impact on the learning environment our mental processing of the task increases.

We become personally engaged.

Another explanation is that we're fulfilling some innate need to be of influence. When we don't use our resources to endure the negative feelings we have towards a situation where our opinions don't matter, we get to direct the energy into the task at hand with a more positive mindset.

And so, when we feel like our point of view matters is relevant, our motivation and expectations improve.

As demonstrated in the "Blue Balls" experiment, even when we make choices that aren't relevant to a particular skill we also improve how we perform and learn that very same skill. This isn't the only time this has been observed - in another experiment the participants improved their balance when they got to decide which painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir they would like to have in the room as they were practicing. 

In other words, it's not merely what kind of decision you make that matters, it's also that you're being given a choice at all.

The last, and perhaps most important reason why autonomy is such a powerful tool, is that you experience your body better than anybody else. Coaches, therapists and scientists might now more about certain mechanisms of the human physiology, but they do not know how you feel. 

Only you know if you want to start your workout with a back squat or Bulgarian split squat.

Nobody can tell you when you are tired or if you'd be better off throwing a lead straight or rear hook right now.

There's no other person that can listen to your body, follow your intuition and act accordingly for you. Autonomy is about taking advantage of this power and reaping the benefits that only you can give yourself.

How I wrote my program.

This is what my current strength and mobility program looks like: 

  • On the blackboard, I've written down exercises that all fall under various categories.

  • In the notebook, I write down reps and sets, as well as notes on my performance and progression.

There are many considerations that have been taken in the design of this program (sets, reps, intensity and goals) but the particular aspect we're going to focus on is how this setup promotes autonomy.
Due to the lack of fixed numbers, exercises and conventional structure I am forced, every single workout, to answer the two following questions:

Which exercises would I like to do and in which order do I want to do them?

I am free to choose any exercise I've written down on the blackboard. The condition is that I pick exercises that belongs to the category of movements I'm allowed to train that day:

  • Day 1 + 4: Upper body push (push ups, shoulder presses etc) and lower body posterior chain (deadlifts, nordic hamstring curls etc)

  • Day 2 + 5 = Upper body pull (pull ups, inverted rows) and lower body anterior chain (squats, natural leg extensions etc)

  • Day 3 + 6 = Mobility, suspension, support and misc.

To answer this question, I have to check in on my body and do what feels intuitively right before I start training.

How do I want to progress this workout?

Once I've decided which exercises I'll do, I figure out how I want to progress that day:

  • More: Adding load, reps or changing the tempo of the movement.

  • Different: Changing the range of motion, stance, grip, posture.

Days I'm tired, or when a particular body part feels like it hasn't fully recovered, I tend to do something "different". When I feel energized, I make it a goal to do "more". 

 Your Program Does Not Own You

What I really like about this setup is not only that it allows me to perform better (which I can report that it does), nor is it due to the fact that I feel more motivated and retain more knowledge from every workout.

No, the best part about it is that I'm not at liberty to say that "this was a bad workout". If it did indeed feel bad it's because I didn't respect how I felt and adjusted accordingly. 

And so, every workout reminds me that I am responsible for my well being - not my program. 

When we accept this, and stop looking for answers that only we ourselves can provide, we can work towards our goals on the basis of we are today, and not merely the idea of who we wish to be tomorrow. 


  • If you currently follow a program:

    • Before you start one of your workouts, sit down and decide which order you'd like to do the exercises. See how your performance and experience compares to when you follow the predetermined order.

    • Before you start your second or last set of an exercise, see what happens when you only do as many repetitions as you feel like.

  • If you’re not following a program:

    • Choose one of the skills you're currently practicing (ie. handstands, juggling, one leg balance drills) and ask yourself the following questions before or during an attempt:

      • Which mistake do I want to avoid now?

      • How long do I want to practice?

      • Which song would I like to listen to?